Members: Jacob Gossett, Thomas Mullarney III
Occupation: Producers, songwriters
Current Release: Beacon's Along the Lethe is out via Apparent Movement.
If you enjoyed this interview with Beacon, visit the duo's official website for more music, and recent updates. They're also on Instagram, Facebook, twitter, and Soundcloud.
What was your first studio like?
J: Working in Brooklyn in the early years our studio was wherever we could set up shop. Bedrooms, living rooms, etc.
T: I have memories of working on endless 8 bar loops in Reason in empty classrooms of the Pratt design building when we were students there.
J: One summer we took over my Grad school painting studio. We eventually graduated to a proper space in Williamsburg, but the first few years it was a mobile studio.
T: So yeah, our earliest studios were basically repurposed art school classrooms.
How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
J: The studio grew alongside our production needs and wants. I like that it’s been an organic process of slowly building and learning, and the gear and space has been a byproduct of that growth.
T: Building an evolving studio for us is usually about introducing more challenges and complexity to our practice as musicians. Embracing new instruments, microphones, outboard gear can add depth and nuance to the creative practice. There’s an innocence to a new piece of equipment and sometimes that can be really fruitful.
J: Currently the upright piano, and the Prophet 08 are two critical writing tools in our process.
Some see instruments and equipment as far less important than actual creativity, others feel they go hand in hand. What's your take on that?
J: I’m a bit in both camps. Instruments and gear are just tools, you can be creative with anything with the right approach and sensibility.
That being said, I think sounds in and of themselves are inspiring and can lead you to places that are new and exciting. I think the most creative moments with equipment are when you don’t quite understand it.
There is something very exciting about exploring new sounds with no preconceived idea of what they can be.
A studio can be as minimal as a laptop with headphones and as expansive as a multi-room recording facility. Which studio situation do you personally prefer – and why?
T: I think Beacon takes advantage of both. We’ve written songs in earbuds in the backseat of a Prius while on tour and we’ve written songs in the most elaborate, professional recording studios. There’s no hierarchy between them to us, particularly when it comes to the early sparks of an idea that inspire us.
J: They all have their place in our process. It’s important to be adaptable and understand what the needs are in your current stage of writing. This record was conceived and worked in many forms and each brought a lot of value to creating the spirit of the record.
From traditional keyboards to microtonal ones, from re-configured instruments (like drums or guitars) to customised devices, what are your preferred controllers and interfaces? What role does the tactile element play in your production process?
J: We’ve gotten deeper into how signal is routed through our gear over the years. There is something very fluid about physical gear, almost improvisational, while soft synths you can get into really detailed moves. Both serve an important role in our process.
In the light of picking your tools, how would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
T: I do think we are interested in music of the future and excavating sounds from our instruments that we haven't heard before.
Charting a frontier within our music that challenges our own preconceptions is probably the top priority, and what keeps us coming back to the studio more than anything else.
Most would regard recording tools like microphones and mixing desks as different in kind from instruments like keyboards, guitars, drums and samplers. Where do you stand on this?
T: I’m inspired by all facets of music technology. We don’t really see our equipment, even the most utilitarian tools, as divorced from the creative side of what we do.
We use an outboard EQ from a company called MAAG that utilizes an “Air Band.” What it’s doing sonically is very useful in a mix but conceptually it is also really intriguing to me - essentially it’s affecting frequencies beyond an audible range, but the curve used to affect the amplitude of those frequencies is applied to what we CAN hear in a very distinct and interesting way.
How would you describe the relationship between technology and creativity for your work? Using a recent piece as an example, how do you work with your production tools to achieve specific artistic results?
T: Our studio practice combines the most modern sound design tools with the most rudimentary.
J: The Beacon arps have long been a thing. We’re always exploring new ways to make them more interesting and unexpected over the years. Utilizing multiple inputs from both the daw and the instruments themselves have yielded really unexpected results.
T: We used Jacob’s son's shaker toy on a song like “Ostrich,” which also features the bass sax from Colin Stetson, a random noise oscillator from a Prophet 08 synthesizer and a studio upright piano. Each of these sounds and textures is crucial to the character of the song.
Within a digital working environment, it is possible to compile huge archives of ideas for later use. Tell me a bit about your strategies of building such an archive and how you put these ideas and sketches to use.
T: One of the benefits of having a studio practice together that spans 10 years is the repertoire of custom sounds we’ve created on our synthesizers we can call on and modify to suit specific purposes in a song.
We recently had one of our instruments repaired and there was a lot of hand-wringing about losing the sounds, calling the engineer a few times like concerned parents. Those sounds are irreplaceable.
How do you retain an element of surprise for your own work – are there technologies which are particularly useful in this regard?
J: We often add new gear, plugins, effects for every record. It’s important to introduce things that feel foreign. Finding moments where you don’t fully understand what’s going on is one of the most fruitful periods of unpacking new sound.
T: We built a custom patch using a tool in Cubase called a midi transformer - which takes incoming notes and converts them into new notes based on a custom logic. We’d create rules like “Mute All White Keys” or “Convert Sharps Into Naturals” and then send a randomly generated sequence through. The results were pretty intriguing!
Production tools can already suggest compositional ideas on their own. How much of your music is based on concepts and ideas you had before entering the studio, how much of it is triggered by equipment, software and apps?
T: There’s an interesting example to bring up here.
One of the softsynths we use has about a thousand presets, and in the same week, Jacob and I separately found and used the same esoteric FX preset buried in one of the soundbanks. Obviously there is a consistency in the workflow we’ve developed together, but I hadn’t realized how deeply synched our ears were as producers until then.
Have there been technologies which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
T: Voice notes on iPhone. It is a personal journal of hundreds of short form creative ideas that in hindsight charts the kinds of melodies I write at my most unguarded. When I listen back, they’ll remind me of how crucial that free and improvisation writing is to the main catalog we put out there.
Please recommend two pieces of art (book, painting, piece of music) to our readers that they should know about.
T: Memoria: I bought tickets to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria a few months in advance because, at the time, limited weekend runs in select cities were the only way you could see it. Weerasethakul says he doesn’t mind if people fall asleep in his movies, but I didn’t have that experience. Memoria, rather, melted me into a hyperfocused, sonic trance. Sounds are the main characters in Memoria. There’s the mysterious bang that erupts through theater speakers like shifting tectonic plates or the hypnotic flow of a tranquil stream in the second half. Sound waves are a spiritual force in Memoria.
Harrow by Joy Williams: I read Harrow in the final stages of writing our new album in late 2021. The world is poisoned in Harrow and Williams’s characters at the edge of the civilization reckon with a mix of outrage and weariness that felt too familiar during that second winter of the pandemic.
J: Nat Meade - I met Nat in 2009 while at a residency at The Skowegan School for Painting and Sculpture. He quickly became one of my favorite painters. In an era obsessed with technology and the digital, Nat is a throwback. His work is intimate and labored over. There is a real sense of discovery in his process. Layers bleed through to the surface, images abandoned and rediscovered, you can see the history unfolding. The speed of seeing only seems to accelerate year after year, Nat’s paintings force you to slow down and really look. We were thrilled when he signed on to create the cover for our new record Along the Lethe.
Sayre Gomez - I’ve been following Sayre Gomez’s work for a few years, and saw his recent show in New York last fall. Like Nat, there is a real mastery of materials, though to very different ends. The painted surfaces are flawless, painstakingly photographic, and in some cases meant to mimic objects. The most intriguing works function somewhere between painting and sculpture. Whether he is depicting a full scale storefront, or a gated market door with faded decals and advertisements littered across it, the works are equal parts whimsical and menacing. They feel like echoes of contemporary life, displaced relics waiting to be discovered.